100 years ago today, Ukraine achieved ‘false independence’ from Russia and 3.94 million people starved to death
By KENICHI OGURA
The ETV special ‘Sofiya: 100 Years of Memory’ (broadcast 18 March 2023) was a unique documentary in which Sofiya, a Ukrainian living in Japan, dug up the history of the hardships her ancestors suffered from Russia with her family. The programme title, ‘Sofiya: 100 Years of Memory’, derives its name from the fact that Sofiya’s great-grandmother of the same name, ‘Sofiya’, lived in Ukraine exactly 100 years ago and lived under the Russian (Soviet) occupation.
In this issue, the 100-year history of Ukraine and Russia will be unravelled, while also mentioning this ETV special. The programme is no longer broadcast, but can be watched on NHK On Demand. The programme was so well structured that it was like watching a film.
The emphasis of the programme was that Ukrainians living in Japan have come to feel a strong sense of pride in their “homeland”, which they had not been very conscious of before. A typical example would be Christmas. The Christmas celebrations, which used to be held in January, the same month as the Russian Orthodox Church, were changed to December last year. The intention is to drop the abominable practice created by the ‘aggressor – Russia’.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “people said that Ukrainian speakers were countrymen. I think that is propaganda. And there was a bit of teasing, a lot of bullying. It wasn’t safe to talk about Ukrainian language, Ukrainian culture.” (Sofiya’s mother, Natalya). Natalya said that her conversations with the man who would become her husband were in Russian, both during dating and after marriage. Of course, Natalya’s husband is Ukrainian and a native speaker of Ukrainian.
She said that there were many things she could not speak even in the house. If she was tipped off by someone she did not know who it was, she was immediately arrested. Many people she knew were detained for things they did not remember and never returned. The Soviet secret police whipped them mercilessly, even the elderly, demanding confessions and further snitches. Unable to bear the pain, they would not let them leave until they made a false confession, and on the basis of the false confession a new ‘prisoner’ would be brought in, whipped and shot for the slightest thing. In some cases, not only the individual but also all family members and relatives were killed together. In order to survive, the Ukranians gradually became mute and the expressions disappeared from their faces.
In his speech after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “I stress again. Ukraine is not just a neighbour for us, Russia. It is an inseparable part of our unique history, culture and spiritual world”, stating that Russia and Ukraine are historically one and the same and that “Ukraine is a part of Russia”.
Is this true? Let us go back in history to 100 years ago today.
First, some historical background: in 1922, the ‘Soviet Socialist Union’ was formed. The USSR was a federal state formed by the ‘free will’ of the various socialist republics, including the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus, which were institutionally allowed to secede from the USSR. In reality, of course, there was no such thing as secession, but rather ‘false independence’.
Thereafter, under Soviet rule, Ukraine, one of the world’s leading agricultural and grain-producing countries, was subject to a series of devastating famines. The first famine occurred in 1920-1921. In addition to the fact that grain production was declining due to the Communist Party’s collectivisation of agriculture, food was forcibly sent to food-starved mainland Russia under the guise of ‘wartime communism’, without regard to local conditions. One million Ukrainians died in this famine.
Reflecting on this, the Soviet Union, led by Lenin, restored the liberal economy through the ‘Nep’ (New Economic Policy) in 1921. It also adopted an ‘indigenisation policy’ for Ukraine, adopting policies tailored to the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian language. Over the next decade, Ukrainians were allowed to be Ukrainians in all aspects of language, culture and religion. However, that short-lived policy was set to revert to hell with the arrival of Stalin. In the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), he re-enacted the ‘collectivisation of agriculture’, which had failed once before. Peasants who did not comply were executed or sent to camps, but the production sites were in chaos. The harvest fell to 35% below the previous year’s level. What ensued was the great famine known as the ‘Holodomor’ (1932-1933). The peasants had no bread, rats and even tree bark, but it was still not enough, and there are stories that a total of 2505 people ate human flesh. It is not clear how many people died of starvation in total, as the Soviet Union is hiding this information, but it is estimated to have been between three and six million, and this programme stated that “it is also said that 3.94 million people died of starvation”.
While Lenin reflected on the previous famine and returned to a liberal economy, giving Ukrainians more freedom, Stalin did exactly the opposite and further tightened control through purges; the repression of intellectuals and cultural figures active in the 1920s was also harsh. Famously, hundreds of musicians who took part in a competition to play the Ukrainian folk instrument, the kobuza, were executed for being ‘nationalistic’. Ukrainian education and culture were uniformly Russified by Stalin. President Putin’s point at the beginning of this article that ‘Ukraine is part of Russia’ refers to a bloody history of purges, control, starvation, secret police and torture.
This history is why the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which a famous musician (Ukrainian) from Herson was shot dead by Russian troops in October 2022 for ‘refusing to cooperate with a concert organised by the Russian side’, revived in the minds of Ukrainians the nightmare of the Stalinist era. It brought back nightmares of the Stalin era in the minds of Ukrainians.
Hiroki Sano, NHK director who produced the programme, recalls his coverage.
What impressed me was the strong desire of the Ukrainians to make their tragic history known. Not only the Sofiya family, but also the Ukrainians who happened to be there as extras or interpreters, would remember the memory of their ancestors being killed, and more than once they would start to shed tears. I was shaken by the fact that every family still bears the scars of history. The war has brought back those hundred years of memories, whether we like it or not. Moreover, such history has long been covered up. We need to dig up important facts and communicate them widely. We thought this was a theme we should be working on. The Holodomor, purges of intellectuals, suppression of language and culture, surveillance by secret police, rendition, concentration camps, Russification education ……. The more I looked into it, the more times I was at a loss as to how spectacular it was. That is why we cannot afford to turn back the clock. Ukrainians are still struggling with a century of history on their shoulders.”
To what extent do we Japanese understand the sadness of our homeland being overrun by another culture and language, and the anger of being driven to starvation?